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Attucks' story is America's story

A portrait of Crispus Attucks, who was killed

A portrait of Crispus Attucks, who was killed during the Boston Massacre, is sometimes refered to as the first casualty of the American Revolution. Credit: Courtesy of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (

Independence Day is the time to honor, grapple with, and memorialize the 244-year-old American experiment. So this July 4 weekend, let’s remember Crispus Attucks.

Attucks was a Black and Native American man and former slave who died in the Boston Massacre. He is sometimes refered to as the first casualty of the American Revolution, one of five individuals shot and killed by British troops confronted by a crowd of civilians on March 5, 1770.

The event was part of a succession of rising tensions between the British military forces and Bostonians already mad over new taxes created by the Stamp Act and other distant impositions. Well-known patriots like Samuel Adams used the massacre to promote revolutionary zeal. Thus the war, and independence, and America, and July 4 barbecues and fireworks.

Attucks was a critical figure in the birth of America and hasn’t gotten his full due. Not much is known about him beyond his work as a sailor, perhaps as a ropemaker. Though some groups saw him as an instigator at this crucial historical moment, his name was raised by crusaders for civil rights in different generations. Yet school classrooms tend to spend less time on his deeds and what kind of life he might have lived in that era than on the Boston Tea Party, the midnight ride of Paul Revere, and other relatively uplifting precursors to the war.

What is clear is that our history is more complicated than simple binaries and cartoonish assumptions about American heroes. Consider that John Adams, who followed George Washington as president, first served as a lawyer for the other side — the British — after the massacre and criticized the “mad behavior” of Attucks in particular, how his “very looks was enough to terrify any person.”

The soldiers who killed Attucks and four others were acquitted of murder, and you may hear echoes of the harsh courtroom language used to describe Attucks being employed against some Black men in legal settings today.

Many of the elements present at Attucks’ death have reappeared and reappeared throughout American history. A Black man’s killing helped launch a movement. A demonstration was criticized but also celebrated, described alternately as a riot and a protest. Representatives of the law were freed even after killing civilians. Americans were skeptical of far-away authorities whose decisions made no sense.

Most of all, Attucks’ life and death make clear that race was at the heart of American history from the very beginning, even if it wasn’t understood that way by all. The legacies of slavery and prejudice have never fully been outgrown, the contribution of Black Americans never fully appreciated. Yet the outstanding aspect of America is its capacity for improvement. It must continue the forward motion, and there’s a long way to go.

— The editorial board